Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life Force (Saturn)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1997

One of the questions that some people (especially non-shmuppers) often ask is:
- Is this Life Force game the same as that Salamander?

Yes and no. Long story short, Life Force is an updated and properly tweaked version of Salamander. The latter was renamed as Life Force when released in the west, receiving a light makeover on graphics and items. Konami would bring this version back to the Japanese market with the same Life Force title but carrying even greater changes, such as fleshing out the organic motif that dominates the game, changing some BGMs completely and replacing the power-up system with the same power-up scheme created in Gradius. The version of Life Force that appears in the Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus disc is this last one, that is, the Japanese final iteration of the game.

In Life Force the player needs to battle enemies inside a living organism, and all stages are redesigned in order to convey the necessary environments. As a result, the graphics represent an undeniable improvement from what was shown in Salamander. The star-dotted backgrounds of stages 2 and 5 are a very good example of this. Other changes appear in boss sprites, asteroids turning into "kidney stones" and fire arch bursts being signalled as "acid flames". Since the power-ups are taken from the Gradius scheme, it simply consists of getting successive green orbs and activating the desired power-up when it gets lit in the weapon array bar. Each orb advances one section of this bar (speed, missile, pulse/ripple, laser, multiple/option, shield), and dealing with this arrangement should be no news for those who have played at least one Gradius game.

Kidney stones cannot be destroyed!

Overall I found Life Force more enjoyable than Salamander. For starters, it doesn't have that wall during the 4th boss confrontation. The spheres the boss spits aren't the easiest thing you'll face in the game, but they are perfectly manageable and don't require any exquisite strategy to be dealt with. In my opinion, this alone was enough to succesfully balance the gameplay in Salamander, and for that I am very thankful to Konami (never mind the absolute lack of continues). I can come back to Life Force any time for a quick play, but I don't feel inclined to do the same for Salamander any time soon. The good news is that almost everything else, apart from the power-up system, is virtually the same in both games.

One of the most noticeable changes in Life Force is that you can have up to four simultaneous shields. As long as you don't deplete any of them, the first one is activated in front of the ship, the next two appear on the sides and the 4th in its rear. It's really nice to see all of them guarding Vic Viper, but the drawback is that with more shields the rank really starts kicking in, to the point of bringing the bullet count close to the same level you have in Gradius. This meant no more than one shield for me! And I also noticed that refraining from activating a shield before the meteor shower in the 4th stage makes this specific part easier (wider gaps between meteors).

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus' intro and gameplay for Life Force until stage 5
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

The last major departure from the original formula is related to the power-up bar for player 2. It has a completely different order, and it goes like this: missile, laser, multiple/option, pulse/ripple, speed, shield. Was this maybe aimed at giving another feature to distinguish one game from the other? No clue about it, but no worries either because we all play our shmups by ourselves, right? In Life Force there are also a lot more messages from the game's narrator, with some of them being downright weird (Destroy violent antibiotics!). And just like in the other games from the compilation, this one can be played with absolutely nothing from the original arcade slowdown by setting the wait control to OFF in the Options.

In my best run I was able to reach stage 2-3, playing on NORMAL. Note: although both games have the same amount of enemies, the score in Salamander is always higher because every power-up is also worth 2.000 points, which does not happen in the revised - and better - Life Force.

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